September 28th is International Right to Know Day. 11 years ago a number of international Freedom of Information organisations and activists came together in Bulgaria and created the FOI Advocates Network. This network works to promote peoples’ right to access to information and open and transparent governance, and as a focus for the campaign on Right to Information, September 28th was named International Right to Know day.
Humans are a fairly sociable species, large numbers of us interact and share information on social networks like Twitter, Facebook, Pintrest, Instagram on a daily basis. Before the advent of the internet we shared information through SMS, phone calls and before that, through letters and face-to-face conversations. We share ideas through books, lessons and discussions. Access to information is important because it facilitates this freedom of expression and sharing.
Information is important. It allows us to make good decisions based on what we know or have found out. If that access to information is blocked, decisions people make will be faulty because they simply cannot know all the facts. For example, if you didn’t have access to information on how the current government was implementing their promises, how could you make a good decision on whether to vote for them come the next election?
Access to information is also important for educating people and helping them improve their own lives. TuDerechoASaber.es is a great example of a group of people creating a platform with the aim to make information accessible to the general public. Though there is no Right To Information law in Spain, it hasn’t stopped David Cabo curating a successful site. The beauty of which is that there is a record of every time the government refuses to reply. The hope is that this will eventually spur a change in the law, while educating people about their rights and helping them improve their knowledge.
Finally, without information being shared, would there have been revolution in the Arab world? When people have access to information about the situation in other countries, they are more likely to stand up and do something. Be that standing up to help people somewhere else, or standing up to change something where they are.
There will be a number of events happening around the world to celebrate International Right to Know Day. The Philippines are having a social media and in person event called #LightUp4FOI, lighting candles in front of their House of Representatives in Manila “to symbolise (their) desire to have a government where information is illuminated and made accessible to all citizens”. The hope is that this will help push through an FOI bill in the Philippines. In Ukraine, a local NGO are screening a documentary about the road to the 2011 Access to Information Law called Open Access. In Liberia the FOI Network has organised a parade through the streets of Fishtown City followed by a radio talk show then a CSO vs Government Officials football match. You can find information about these events, and more, on this google map.
Whatever you are doing, Happy Right to Know day!
Uruguay has one of the most successful e-government initiatives in Latin America. The president supported the development, a generous budget was made available and international cooperation was welcomed. Despite this fact, and an access to information law passed in 2008, up until 2012 there was uncertainty and resistance on the part of the government, both to responding to FOI requests and to accepting e-FOI requests.
All of this changed with the launch of Qué Sabes, a freedom of information requesting platform using the Alaveteli code created by mySociety. For DATA, an organisation working towards more online open government in Uruguay, this allowed them to change laws on email requests. For mySociety, it’s further proof that our platform can be adapted to any jurisdiction, language, and geography by any organisation with some small technical ability.
In the beginning…
To DATA it was obvious that the authorities shouldn’t get away with ignoring requests made by email. Fabrizio Scrollini, one of DATA’s co-founders tells us, “In 2012 at the University of Oxford a group of activists took part in a conference on access to information hosted by British NGO mySociety.” The conference demonstrated the success of online FOI platforms in other countries, so why not Uruguay. This meeting of minds inspired Fabrizio and Gabriela Rodriguez, a software engineer for DATA, to make the leap and create their own FOI platform.
But was mySociety’s code difficult to implement? “Over a week (with some sleep deprivation) the first prototype was ready to go and was quietly online.”
“The platform decision was based on very basic criteria about technology support and usability,” Fabrizio says. “In terms of technology the team looked for relatively clean code, Open Source software, and a community that could support long term work. By that time, Alaveteli was the only software doing the former.”
It also helped that there was an existing Spanish Alaveteli platform up and running from another mySociety partner, TuDerechoASaber, which made translation of the website components easier.
What was the most challenging?
According to DATA, the biggest challenge was collecting data from the government, something that they were best placed to do alone. This was anything from email addresses to finding out if the information they had gathered was out of date.
“The Uruguayan state is not a small one (albeit the country is small),” Fabrizio tells us. “And email [addresses] were not easily available. We made use of an official agenda of authorities (in closed format) to get the first emails.”
Collaboration with other local, sometimes non-technical, NGOs was also key. “Present[ing] a united front […] solve[d] the crucial issue of making the site work.” It was also crucial in pushing the authorities to accept email freedom of information requests as a valid legal format.
Launch and results
Qué Sabes launched in October 2012 with significant local and international publicity, thanks to DATA’s coordination with both Latin American and European NGOs.
Currently the site has had 228 requests sent through it. Its sister site WhatDoTheyKnow, launched by mySociety four years previously, has over 160,000 requests, which shows the possible growth for a site of this kind.
But for DATA, the biggest result has to be influencing a change in the law. “In January 2013,” writes Fabrizio, “after 170 requests were filed online and [with] significant public pressure, [the] Uruguayan authorities conceded that online access to information requests are legal. Access to information is now a right that Uruguayans can exercise just by sending an email.”
So what have DATA taken away from the process?
“Setting up a website such as Qué Sabes involved a significant amount of [non-technical] time and effort.” We at mySociety, as much as we may want to, are not in a position to support these sites with grants, only technical help and practical advice. “An initial group of 5 highly motivated (DATA) volunteers went from installing the software to launching it, covering several areas such as programming, legal expertise, communication and policy issues.”
The volunteers are essential. Fabrizio tells us, “We hope to organise them so eventually they can run the website and provide support to each other. […] Yet the crucial point has been made: the state has to answer FOI requests through email in the 21st century.”
A few days ago, one of our international contacts, Matthew Landauer from the OpenAustralia Foundation, posted to the Alaveteli mailing list about a recent experiment in crowdsourcing FOI requests. It’s pretty interesting stuff, so I asked if we could share more widely.
Matthew tells us: “It’s a project called DetentionLogs and it’s a collaboration between a small group of freelance journalists, Guardian Australia, New Matilda, The Global Mail and OpenAustralia Foundation.
The journalists have done some FOI [requesting] to get a summarised list of around 7000 “incidents” that have happened in detention centres. Then, if members of the public are interested in finding out more they can help out by doing a further FOI request for detailed information about the incident via RightToKnow, OpenAustralia’s FOI site which uses Alaveteli.”
But what’s the history? According to the Guardian, over the past few years there’s been a sharp rise in the number of specific incidents in Australia’s two largest immigration detention centres. Elections are coming up soon (though still not confirmed) and the topic of immigration is one of the fiercest political debates around the elections. The co-founders of DetentionLogs came across a large PDF document on the Immigration Department’s disclosure log, with a summary of the incidents – and the project sprang from there.
The idea is that people can view the visual database, see incidents and click on them to adopt them or flag them. Adopting an incident takes you to the RightToKnow website where you can submit a pre-drafted FOI request to get more details. You also have the option to edit it, but the page opens with all the incident data that is needed to match the request with the incident you clicked on. Flagging an incident makes it appear brighter on the visualisation, drawing other people’s attention to it. Global Mail asked two requesters to share their reasons for participating here. It’s interesting reading, but also quite shocking.
So far there have been around 125 FOI requests made through this site. But it’s not all been plain sailing…
Matthew writes this of his challenges: “This is what I’ve learned from the experience so far:
- The government department in question (department of immigration) is clearly concerned by the crowdsourcing, so much so that each of these requests is being handled personally by the director of FOI policy for the department and they’re doing whatever they can to shut things down, including in this case, a misinterpretation of the FOI legislation. Kat Szuminska and I wrote an opinion piece on this for the Global Mail.
- The relationship between the multiple websites involved in DetentionLogs confuses people a bit. People might start on the global mail “behind the wire” site and then get directed at RightToKnow to make the FOI request. So, we’ve had a couple of cases where people gave their email addresses to RightToKnow, we message them and then they thought that the DetentionLogs project had given us their email address without permission.
- There is no way currently in Alaveteli to contact a group of people. What I ended up doing is taking an email that the DetentionLogs people wrote, exporting a list of email addresses by hand from the database and emailing them personally on behalf of the DetentionLogs people. This was hardly ideal, it confused people. I think I would much prefer that people who make a request in one of these FOI crowdsourcing campaigns could optionally sign up to a mailing list or a public forum where they could discuss strategy and such things.”
This crowdsourcing experiment is still a work in progress, and it will be interesting to see how it turns out. It’s great to see how the Alaveteli software can be adapted to fit a specific campaign and hopefully that can inspire others to use it in a similar way. Mail Us to see how.
 Crowd by Michael Dornbierer
 Fountain pen from William Arthur fine stationary
 Experiment from Peter Megyri
One of the common elements you will find across mySociety’s sites is that they have features designed to reduce duplicate messages or reports being sent to politicians, governments or companies. We often do this in quite a subtle way, so it is worth spelling out here how we do this across several sites:
- If you start to report a broken street light or pothole on FixMyStreet, you’ll see local problems before you start to type in your own details. This means if the problem is already there, you can see before you waste any effort.
- If you use WhatDoTheyKnow to send a Freedom of Information request to a public body, we provide a facility which encourages users to search through other people’s requests before they type their new request in.
- If the 08:10 train you take to work is always late, when you go to report it on FixMyTransport, we show you all the other problems already reported on that route. If someone else has already set up a page, you can press the big green ‘join’ button, and show your support.
- If more than a handful of people try to use WriteToThem to send an exact duplicate of the same message to a politician, it will prevent it. This is because we know that politicians listen much, much more to individual messages from constituents than bulk mails.
This pattern – trying to intervene before people write identical messages or reports – is a design decision that makes a big difference to the way these sites operate. As usual with mySociety sites, this little feature seems like the sort of thing that would be quite tempting to skip when building a copy. But it really matters to the long term success of the sites. There are three reasons why.
First, there is a simple public benefit that comes from saving time. There’s no point us wasting your time if a report or request has already been sent, especially around minor issues. Saving your users time makes them happier and more likely to enjoy their experience.
Second, if you can spot that someone is about to send a duplicate message, we may be able to encourage that user to support the existing report instead of making a new one. For example, on FixMyStreet you can add an update to an existing pothole report (“it’s getting worse!”).
This feature is most visible, and most mature, on FixMyTransport, where users are clearly encouraged to ‘support’ pre-existing reports, rather than making new copies. By discouraging duplicate reports, we let people with a shared problem work together, even if this only means adding themselves as a “supporter” and doing nothing else. We know that many people search for, and find, problem reports which have turned into these little campaigns, which they then join and help. So even if they are only reading them (not joining them) that exposure can have some value to the people affected. This would be diluted if we created lots of similar reports about the same problem.
Third, we discourage duplicates for the benefit of the governments and companies receiving messages. We don’t think FixMyStreet is effective because it lets people moan: we think it’s effective because it helps local government to be effective by giving them good quality reports about local problems, in formats that area easy to handle. This good quality reporting increases the chance that the government will understand the problem and act on it, which leads to our main goal – citizen empowerment. Recipients are unlikely to help users if many of the messages they get are confused, inaccurate or duplicates, so we work on all these fronts.
So if you haven’t thought about this before, notice how the “work flow” through our sites makes you see similar problems before you’ve finished reporting your own. This is the implicit way to prevent duplication. We don’t have “Stop! Warning! Check this is a new problem!” messages, because we never want to discourage genuine users. But the careful design of the interface gently discourages, successfully, duplicate reports, and encourages supporting of other items.
It’s never possible to entirely prevent duplication. But we try hard, because it’s always better to join people together around common causes, than it is to let them struggle alone.
Romina Colman was one of the delegates at the Alaveteli conference. As well as making videos, tweeting at a good pace, and talking to everyone, Romina took the time to write up her experiences for Argentina’s national newspaper, La Nacion.
If Spanish is not your language, you can now read the English versions on the Alaveteli blog.
Just to finish off this collection of video clips from the Alaveteli conference, here are a couple featuring mySociety people. They were shot by Romina Colman.
First, mySociety Director Tom Steinberg, talking about what he hopes will happen as a result of the conference.
And below is Seb Bacon, Lead Developer of the Alaveteli Platform, explaining how the project began:
Phew! Do you feel like you were there yet? If you’ve been inspired by the examples and advice from transparency hackers and activists around the world, you may be thinking about building your own Alaveteli site. Why not join our mailing list and introduce yourself? After all, if you’ve watched these videos, you’ll already be familiar with many of the people on the list!
Romina Colman is, in her own words, a Freedom of Information activist from Buenos Aires. She did a great job of recording events at AlaveteliCon, what with blogging for Argentina’s national newspaper La Nacion, copious tweeting, and videos.
Here, Romina speaks to Andrea Menapace from Italy, co-founder of Diritto di Sapere.
In this short clip (1:15), Andrea explains the current situation with Freedom of Information in Italy, and what his nascent organisation hopes to achieve.
Together with Guido Romeo (science editor at Wired Italy) I am the founder of Diritto di Sapere, a brand new organisation working on the Right to Information and Transparency in Italy. I am a lawyer by training and I have been working as a researcher and project manager in human rights and humanitarian organizations. I am currently working as a consultant for international NGOs on digital media and civil society capacity building projects.
DIY mySociety is all about making our code – and our experience – available to people who want to build similar websites in their own countries. We thought it would be helpful to list some examples of sites already using mySociety code, so you can see the variety of different possible outcomes.
It might seem like a simple task, but identifying sites in this way isn’t as straightforward as you might think – we don’t always know when people pick up our open source code! If we’ve missed any, please do comment below and we’ll add them.
There are also many sites around the world which were directly, or indirectly, “inspired by” ours. In these cases, the site’s owners have written their own code from scratch. That’s a subject – and a list – for another post. For now, here are all the international sites using mySociety’s code that we know about.
Alaveteli: our Right-to-Know Platform
WhatDoTheyKnow.com – our original Freedom of Information site
FYI.org.nz – New Zealand Freedom of Information site
Pravodaznam – Bosnia and Herzegovina Freedom of Information site
Queremossaber.br – Brazil Freedom of Information site
Informatazyrtare.org – Albania Freedom of Information site
Tuderechoasaber.es – Spain Freedom of Information site
AskTheEU – Europe Freedom of Information site
FixMyStreet: our fault-reporting Platform
FixMyStreet.com – our original fault-reporting site
Fiksgatami – Norway FixMyStreet
FixOurCity – Chennai FixMyStreet
FixMyStreet.br – Brazil FixMyStreet, based on both our code and FixMyStreet.ca from Canada
Parliamentary monitoring and access to elected representatives
TheyWorkForYou – our original parliamentary monitoring site
WriteToThem – our original ‘contact your representative’ site
Mzalendo – Kenya parliamentary monitoring site
Open Australia – Australia parliamentary monitoring site
Kildare Street – Ireland parliamentary monitoring site
Parlamany – Egypt parliamentary monitoring site
Mejlis – Tunisia parliamentary monitoring site
A community of people, waiting to help
Inspired by the examples above? If you’re thinking of going ahead and building your own site, we’re here to support you with our easy-to-understand guidebooks and our friendly mailing lists. In our online communities you’ll find many of the people who built the sites listed here. There’s no-one better to ask questions, because they’ve been through the process themselves, from early conception right up to completion.
If you are one of those people who has been through the whole process of building, launching and running a site like these (with or without our codebase), and lived to tell the tale, please shout in the comments below. And especially if you’re open to people approaching with questions. Perhaps add a note to say where you prefer to have those conversations – whether that’s via your favourite mailing lists, Twitter, email or simply in the comments to this post.
One last thought – it’s interesting to see that our code can be used for areas as small as a single city (FixMyStreet Chennai) or as large as a confederation of states (AskTheEU.org). In short, it’s scalable! How will you use it?
Image by Windell Oskay, used with thanks under the Creative Commons licence.
Two good reasons to use Alaveteli: it’s flexible, and there’s a supportive, worldwide community. So says Danko Nikolic from Serbia in this half-minute clip.
Danko is one of the founders of the Zajecar Initiative (ZI). ZI has grown into a leading civil society organization working outside the capital of Belgrade. On behalf of ZI, he has developed, co-managed and managed projects funded by various donors, such as National Endowment for Democracy (NED), USA Embassy Democracy Commission, USAID, Fund for an Open Society and others.
Zajecar Initiative is now working on the Serbian version of WriteToThem, aiming to enable the citizens of Serbia to communicate with their local representatives and MPs.
This is Daniela B. Silva from Transparência Hacker in Brazil. In this short clip, Daniela speaks about launching Queremossaber, a Freedom of Information website, into a country where the Right to Know is not yet an embedded part of civic life:
We know that these things are not going to come from Government so easily… you have to create a culture that’s not so based on secrecy; more based on dialogue.”
Transparência Hacker is an autonomous and decentralised community of more than 800 hackers and activists for transparency and openness in Brazil. Queremos Saber is the first Brazilian platform for access to information requests. Transparência Hacker also run the Ônibus Hacker, a bus to spread DIY culture in Brazilian localities – as well as many other projects.